Essays on the Classics!: American History, 1776-1860 (The Great Books Revival) (Volume 4)
Jason R. Goetz, author
The American history volumes of the Essays on the Classics! series bring to life the great works of American nonfiction, making history relevant through their examination. The first volume consists of seven essays, and the second and third each contain six. The first volume begins with a Preface by renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky. Its first essay is an exploration of the fundamental theorems of American history and government: that the power of government is derived from the ‘consent of the governed’ (taken from the Declaration of Independence), and that because man is both the subject and operator of government, there is risk of corruption and therefore the government must be limited in both size and scope to prevent it (taken from The Federalist #51). It shows why Jefferson’s claim that ‘all men are created equal’ is mostly rhetoric, rather than his ideal premise of government, and uses his own life to show that. It explains that these two ideas form the basis for all domestic political conflict in United States history. It describes the various processes for vetoing government action, details the importance of checks and balances and subsidiarity. It examines how these two ideas have been respected or ignored over time in the country, and how many of the wars we have fought have been over the two issues. It then recognizes the role of business in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, exploring the business ethics and virtues of the early American republic and the interplay of them with the government. It explores Franklin’s emphasis on thirteen essential virtues, his criticism of contemporaries, and his role at the Constitutional Convention, contrasting his ideas about how government is meant to facilitate business with modern governmental behavior, which often opposes business. It relates the author’s own experience with several branches of local government in Los Angeles, and notes the contrast between their behavior and Franklin’s ideals. The third essay in the first volume examines George Washington’s two abdications of power, as reflected in the ‘Circular Letter’ to the governors of the states disbanding the Continental Army and in his ‘Farewell Address’ where he states his intent to retire and offers suggestions for the course of future policy. It contrasts Washington’s choices with those of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte, showing how they reflect the idea that government should derives its powers from the consent of the governed, and connecting his suggestions about maintaining public credit and staying out of European affairs with the need to limit both the size and scope of government. It describes how the two letters reflect the four cardinal virtues, and how his warnings against faction and sectionalism were destined to fail when justice and temperance no longer were prized. The fourth essay in the volume examines life on the frontier as seen through Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History, charting the conflicts between settlers on the frontiers and proprietors of the land in the East. It documents the development of a ‘pioneer culture’ which favored religious freedom and was resistant to taxation, and charts the political battles that led to the expansion of the franchise, the lax banking policies of the 1820s and 1830s, and the implementation of the American System of canals, railroads, and tariffs. It documents the political leaders whose families were intimately connected to the frontier, and connects their politics with their background. The fifth essay in the volume describes John C. Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government, explaining its major premise that the ‘great and broad distinction’ between different kinds of government is not that between democracies, aristocracies, monarchies, and so on, but is instead that between ‘the constitutional and the absolute.’ It explains the confusion often made between democracy and constitutional government, explores the development of parties and some of its drawbacks, and notes the conditions requisite for the establishment of constitutional government, which, if they are not met, cause a people to revert to a form of government ‘more simple and absolute.’ It notes the conflict between liberty and protection, which Calhoun says always should incline towards protection. It describes how one portion of the community can arrest the abusive action of another portion in control of the government, and explains the importance of political compromise. It explains how these ideas were connected to Calhoun’s personal experiences, especially during the Nullification Crisis of 1828 and in his relationship with Andrew Jackson, and applies them to contemporary events in the Middle East as well as the implementation of totalitarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s in Russia, Germany, and Italy. The sixth essay examines Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, exploring the ways in which an individual can express his displeasure with government but noting the dangers to those who pursue it. The essay notes that civil disobedience is a powerful moral ideal drawn from a deep religious awakening, borne out of a pure conscience, and explains that it is not to be used for illegal or immoral activities, and must be carefully applied in order to be effective. It explores the historical background of the essay, the Mexican- American War, notes the political figures who were opposed to it, and connects the dissatisfaction of both Thoreau and Calhoun in 1849 to both a crisis in leadership reflected in the Presidents of the period and a fear and distrust of the evolving political role of the common man. The seventh essay explores Thoreau’s later essay, A Plea for Captain John Brown, which reflects somewhat different values than does Civil Disobedience. It describes Brown’s behavior both in Bleeding Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry (the climax of the 1776-1860 period), and explores his conflicted legacy, especially his symbol as a martyr for abolitionists in the North. It explains why and how Thoreau admired Brown, delving into the author’s personal experience base, noting the shift between the respectable form of civil disobedience practiced by Thoreau a decade earlier and his support of violence and recklessness at this time. It describes the events of the 1850s, briefly examines Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and concludes by noting how remarkable it was that the Union held together for another year after Brown’s raid.